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Forget possession stats; Counterattack rules Russia 2018

Monday 9th July 2018

The end is in sight. The most anticipated and publicized football event on the planet is reaching its zenith. What will you do with your life after next week? Oh, right, the transfer window.

This has been a World Cup that has lived up to the billing. In doing so, it took the unconventional route. The underdogs were in with a shout while the phenomenon of playing and winning without the ball was brought to the fore. We always say this tournament has been both entertaining and impressive. How about I attach some stats to give that statement some credence?

  • Through the 60 games of 64 completed, the competition has produced 157 goals from 102 different scorers.
  • The 11 own-goals scored in Russia breaks the previous World Cup record by five goals. Look out Just Fontaine, the comic relief is coming for your record.
  • Four knockout matches have gone on to extra-time, then to penalties, three at the round of 16, one in the quarterfinal.
  • We’ve seen four red cards and 205 yellows. Japan bucked the trend, however, to pip Senegal to the last 16.
  • FIFA says over 2.58 million spectators have graced the 10 stadiums hosting the matches.

From your don’t-touch-the-TV zone at home, you can tell those fans have been entertained because you’re absolutely enjoying this tournament. That’s cliché if you’re an England fan. You’re actually in dreamland, floating in unfathomable ecstasy. Just go to Tesco rather than Ikea, alright? Keep it in-house.

Let’s talk about teams scoring and winning games despite seeing less of the ball. It’s been rife at this competition. The goals aren't coming from teams that like to hold the ball, moving it from side to side until cracks appear in the low block. They've all gone home. The remaining teams have mastered the art of playing without the ball.

Such football comes at a high tactical and mental cost. Heightened energy levels are a prerequisite.

The trend started when Iran beat Morocco 1-0 on 15th June. The Iranians waited out the Moroccan desert storm, then did the needful by pulling off a shock victory. Morocco had 64% of the ball. They fired nine shots and kept three on target. Iran had a couple of shots but relied on a Moroccan own-goal to win the match.

A similar scenario played out at the Spartak stadium when Argentina faced Iceland. The Vikings didn’t care about retaining the ball, they wanted a result and got it. Iceland made efficient, economical use of the ball. They saw it 28% of the time, enough to earn a valiant point. Well, timely counterattacking and the fact that when the referee blew the whistle for action with Lionel Messi at the penalty spot for his closeup, the film director in the Vikings goal said, "Cut!"

Germany suffered the most to counterattacking teams. They lost by one to Mexico against the run of play. Again, the Mexicans did it without seeing much of the ball. The Champions were eventually knocked out on 23rd June in Kazan. South Korean scored twice after the 90th minute. Germany had the lion's share of the ball but was shutout. Already ousted, South Korea claimed a famous victory.

Peru suffered the same fate as Germany in their opening game against Denmark. The Peruvians played better, had more of the ball and created the better chances. In fact, they missed a penalty. Denmark did what mattered. They scored the one goal. That win and a further two draws were enough to see the Danes through to the last 16.

The trend didn’t stop in the group stage. Uruguay and Sweden reaped the benefits in the last 16 to reach the quarterfinal. Japan came mighty close.

Both Uruguay (against Portugal) and Sweden (against Switzerland) employed a compact style and were ruthlessly clinical with scoring chances to pull off victories against their opponents. As you might’ve guessed, those opponents had better ball-possession on the day. Japan had a plan to hit on the break. It worked. The Blue Samurai raced into a two-goal second-half lead against Belgium. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to save them. In the 94th minute, Belgium gave them a taste of their own medicine, breaking the length of the pitch in ten seconds to score the winner.

Russia soaked all the pressure to achieve the unthinkable against Spain. Stopping a team who had 74% ball-possession wasn’t easy but the hosts forced the game into penalties and held their nerves to send the 2010 Champions crashing out.

What can we say about the quarterfinal clash between Brazil and Belgium? The Belgians were a pack of determined hounds who left the playing to Brazil and took over the scoring. They needed just 45% of the ball in the first half to score with two of their three shots on target. It was more than enough to end South America's World Cup hopes.

If we’ve learned anything from this World Cup, it’s that possession football is more about procrastination than patience. If you're going to score, get on with it. If you're going to stand in a circle, you'd be better off making a quilt.

Kingsley Ukpai

Kingsley is a football aficionado who craves to read, watch, play and write about the greatest team sport ever known to man. If you're talking football he'll be keen to listen to what you have to say. Loves to play Fantasy Football too.


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